Thursday, March 20, 2014

Update 1: Baby Steps

I’m new to this writing stuff, so any progress I make feels like a pretty big deal. All the little baby steps still feel significant, and that’s including the things that haven’t quite worked out. I keep telling myself it’s all a part of being diligent and mindful of the process, that I’ll end up learning the most from a slow and steady approach to all the minor details. And I think it’s an outlook that’s already paid off in small ways, some of which are gradually building upon each other.
But first, the stuff that hasn’t gone anywhere: querying agents. I’ve sent out a grand total of ten queries and have been rejected (Supportively! Encouragingly!) by all of them. Some were form letters sent by assistants, others were a little more personalized but ultimately found my thing not a good fit for what they were looking for.
It’s been a relief to discover that rejection at this point is no big deal. I already know I’m working in “acquired taste” territory and haven’t taken any of the passes personally. It helps that everyone has been super-professional and respectful, and that ten queries does not a sample size make. We’ll see how I feel when I have one hundred closed doors staring back at me. For now, though, I haven’t shed a single tear.
In the meantime, I caught a mention via twitter of a free workshop for promoting self-published work and decided to look into it. It was the only free part of a small-scale sci-fi conference held here a few months ago. Not being much of a sci-fi guy and also not quite in a place to act on any tips for promoting a finished work, I initially debated on whether I should bother going. Even on the day of the event, I wasn’t sure it would be worth it; the weather was kinda shitty that weekend and it would’ve been easy to just stay at home. But I finally decided it was the kind of low-impact first step I should be making, if only to see who else would show up to such a thing.
As it turned out, about seven people were there, all of them published authors just checking in to see if there were any new tricks to learn about platforms and e-pportunities (har har). I was the only person who identified as a horror writer, which the workshop presenter made a note of. The presentation itself was informative but (as I’d suspected) a little too advanced for my project to benefit from. Nonetheless, I made sure to send the presenter a quick note that evening, thanking them for making it free for non-conference schmoes like me to attend.
To my surprise, the presenter got in touch with me through Facebook. We exchanged a number of e-mails discussing where I was at and what I might need to consider doing next. They eventually asked to see my manuscript to get a better sense of its quality and for how they might be able to help. After reading it, they suggested I not go directly to self-publishing before I’d really pursued at least some of the options available for small press publishing. A vote of confidence! From someone in the industry! I won’t lie – it felt pretty good.
Another small-ish event was coming up. I made plans to meet up with the presenter at the event to talk a little more about next steps. We had a great chat, after which they introduced me to a highly-regarded freelance editor that had been mentioned in a prior e-mail. This editor and I later connected via Facebook and they asked to look over my first chapter to see if it was something they’d be willing to work on.

Fortunately for me, they were amenable, and we quickly entered into a working relationship (ie, a formal relationship in which I pay them to edit my book). The editor felt confident that about 20,000 words could be cut from the manuscript so that it was more in line with standard lengths for genre fiction.
Of course, I had to think pretty hard about whether this was a necessary cost for what I was trying to do with my first writing effort. I was afraid that I’d only get feedback based on what typically sells better, or that I’d be told certain annoying conventions cannot be flouted by upstarts such as myself.
But I looked further into this editor’s body of work (including some of their own writing – both in fiction and in literary criticism), and came to realize that I’d lucked into connecting with someone who had tastes and sensibilities that are similar to my own. It became clear that working with them on this project was definitely the right call to make. I feel like I can trust their judgment of my work and how to possibly fix the rookie mistakes I’ve no doubt made.
Two weeks ago I sent my manuscript to this editor and paid half of the requisite fee. By tomorrow (TOMORROW!), the editor has promised to deliver their final assessment along with a complete structural edit of my novel. I’ve never worked with anyone on something like this before, so I have no idea what to expect. Will I be told it’s all wrong? Will I be told I need to rethink everything? Will the cuts be too deep? Will all my darlings be dead?
It’s all very exciting, and even if no one shows an interest in the finished product and it ends up languishing on my hard drive, I’ll at least know that I did everything as conscientiously as possible. Not only that, but I’ll be able to see what a professional editing job can do for my work.
I’ll be sure to post another update once I’m on the other side of the editor’s feedback. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Under the Volcano

So obviously a slew of thought-provoking posts from a number of author/publisher types have been burning up a certain corner of the interweb recently. So much chatter! So many points to be made! So many counterpoints to consider!

First and foremost, I'm talking about Chuck Wendig's (predictably coarse but also totally sensible) call for a renewed commitment to quality in self-published writing. After a few initial knee-jerk reactions, I think most people who have taken the time to read through it all (along with the comments, which offer a lot of interesting perspectives themselves) have found it to be less a traitorous indictment than an overdue argument for minimal standards in terms of grammar and syntax.

Shortly thereafter, I caught Beverly Bambury's insightful perspective as a marketing expert who is finding herself splashed by the slop trough as well.

For me, the argument worth considering here is that an unyielding torrent of mediocre self-pubbed books will eventually give ALL self-pubbed books such a bad name that routes of access will start closing.

People won't buy anything that smacks of amateurism if that amateurism becomes too offensive to their sensibilities. Having bought - and loved - a lot of ridiculously amateurish music in my lifetime, I don't know that I buy this argument entirely. But it's still worth considering, I guess.

And then, just today, I found this article from JA Konrath and Hugh Howey (two of the biggest outliers in publishing, it would seem) who take great pains to lay out sales data showing that a lot of what Chuck is up in arms about is thus far not supported by facts.

That's a lot of reading to get through, so I'll hold off from linking further spinoff posts that have added their own range of opinions to the discussion.

Except for this last one, which isn't even directly about book publishing but has hit me in the gut the hardest all the same.

Why? Because it taps into this feeling I've been having lately that all this bickering about publishing models and rising waves of crap writing are moot if the ultimate goal is simply to shift as many units of predictable content to as many readers as quickly as possible. I mean, it's a legit concern, but is that how we're going to frame things? Because I have trouble relating to that. Is this a "commercial fiction" concern that immediately precludes any talk about trying something different?

(Speaking of which, here's something I came across recently that talks about "... the reader’s ire [in this particular case, at coming across a word he hadn't seen before] as a symptom of the creeping consumerist attitude in our response to literature. That attitude includes the desire to be pleased, catered to and flattered by the products we consume and the companies who supply them, and an increasing intolerance of cultural experiences that make any demands on us.")

I've just started sending out queries, so it's too early in the game for me to speak with any authority. But if the traditional book publishing approach is anything like the traditional music publishing approach (and I suspect it is), then why on earth am I hoping and praying and wishing that some agent out there sees something in my work that can be turned into a rehash of Spose's experience?

Not only that, but why on earth are self-publishing authors so worried about how their work stacks up to trad publishing's sub-par offerings? Isn't the whole point of small press and independent production that less mainstream ideas can be pursued in less conventional styles/formats? Aren't there whole markets that are dying for just this kind of variation?

I know not everyone is aspiring to pen the next Fifty Shades-ish megahit, and I personally am not trying to come up with the equivalent of a Trout Mask Replica. But that kind of range in... what? Goals? needs to be factored into the discussion a little more prominently, because the idea that "readers don't want their time wasted" starts to lose it's meaning if the underlying idea is that readers are just looking to burn through familiar product as efficiently as possible.

Am I harping on this too much? Is it all that zine/punk label stuff I grew up on that's making me so wary of what intermediaries will do to what I've written?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mile Marker

It took me close to two and a half years, but I’ve finally finished my first novel.
I guess I technically finished it last weekend, but it’s taken me another full week to make sure I wouldn’t circle around immediately to the first chapter for yet more revisions. But that urge to recast a scene or pick a better turn of phrase didn’t come. I feel like it’s actually in good shape now. I feel like I’m ready to move on to the next part of the project.
When I started, the idea was to see if I could string enough sentences together to tell a story. I wasn’t particularly interested in pushing boundaries, wasn’t trying to blaze any trails. I picked a few simple ideas that had long interested me, and was content to see what mixing them together would bring out.
And man oh man, did mixing those ideas together create some really strange material. A lot of the most satisfying stuff came from pushing myself to solve conflicts or issues with structure as creatively as possible, to really try for something that I could be proud of.
And I am proud of what I’ve written. I’m proud of having done something that has taken on its own shape, that lives entirely outside of my own head, that I can share with others.
In the coming months, while I’m trying to figure out how best to push the manuscript through the square peg/ round hole world of publishing, I’ll be talking more specifically about what inspired me to write this thing, and where I see it going next.
But for now I just want to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing the first major step in an arduous process. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013


Working working working with the hopes of having a thing to show you soon.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Our Aftermath

Don't want to talk much about it just yet, but I have the beginning of an idea for this and am psyched to see the shape it takes as my brain turns it over and over again (endlessly).

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books Like Records

Ah, now see? This is what I've been getting at. I suspected it was a common enough comparison (even if handled a bit facetiously by flavorwire), and I'm glad to see I'm not the only one thinking in these terms.

So: small press publishing. At best, they can attract a devoted readership by consistently putting out high-quality work that is catered to more discerning or adventurous tastes. At worst, they - just as indie record labels have so often done - can be horrible at following up on the promises they've made to vulnerable authors who usually aren't in a position to argue.

There's a famous anecdote from a legendary band who talked about doing business with an indie label. I'm not going to search out the direct quote just now, but it ran something along the lines of, "We knew they were screwing us. When they gave us some money, we asked if we could see the accounting behind it. 'Well,' they said, 'you can see the accounting or you can see the money. Which would you like it to be?'" I'll bet there are a million similar stories in the small press publishing world.

And I'm not really sure that small publishing houses have been as successful at developing their brand identities as indie record labels. I get the feeling they haven't found ways to snag the "young eyes" to the same extent that the young ears have been successfully colonized over the years. Every now and then, I'll see a House of Anansi bookbag when I'm on the subway. But they're few and far between, and not as prevalent as the Arts & Crafts buttons I see on jackets and backpacks.

But once again, I think the allure of indie-scaled publishing is that you can stop shaping your work according to what's been landing 6-figure deals in exchange for slowly cultivating a readership that will feel strongly about your work. For projects that won't ever be considered commercially marketable, that seems like a far healthier place to be writing from. All of which is really easy for me to say at this point.

I don't have enough experience yet to do more than guess at how things will play out. I guess we'll just see, right?

Monday, August 05, 2013

Son of "Stereo Sanctity"

I don’t know anything about publishing.

Honestly, I’ve never had “skin in the game”, so to speak, so I have no idea about how things work or what to make of recent shifts in the industry’s changing landscape. It’s all new to me, and there’s no doubt I’m learning as I go.

But because I’ll be done with the last edits of my first novel within the next few months, I’ve had to think a bit harder about what comes next for me. During that process, I’ve slowly developed a pet theory about what avenues will ultimately be open to this raw but not-young first timer when push finally comes to shove.

At this point, I’m thinking about it like this:

I’m old enough now to understand that my tastes in most things are slightly unconventional. They probably always will be, for that matter. Not that it’s really anything to be proud of. It just means I have my own particular preferences that are sometimes hard to find reflected in the mass media. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those rare and beautiful snowflakes. Plenty of people in the world like what I like. We’re just not as prevalent in the general population, I guess.

I’m listening to Sonic Youth’s album Sister while I type this, for instance. I could listen to it all day, and often have over the last few decades. It’s not especially obscure, but what percentage of active music listeners would say it’s something that holds meaning for them? How many would turn it off before the first song was done? When indie label SST first put it out, what did the major labels think about it? It was so dissonant, so ugly, in comparison to what was on the radio. “Limited appeal” is probably the gentlest way to put it, you know?

And yet, that album’s marked “otherness” is exactly the kind of effect I’m hoping to achieve with my own project. A lot of people debate self-publishing’s potential for competing with traditional publishing’s ability to sell books. I’m feeling like the more relevant issue for me is self-publishing’s ability to make works of “limited appeal” available to those who have always had to search longer and harder for things that will satisfy their odd cravings.

I suspect that major publishers seek to smooth out those eccentric edges whenever possible. They rely more on what’s tried and true than on what a few oddballs are dying for, and I understand the need for that approach. But if my novel ends up in the hands of those few people who will truly connect with it, EVEN IF THERE AREN’T ENOUGH SUCH PEOPLE TO MAKE THE EFFORT A SUSTAINABLE ONE, then I’ll feel extremely successful. I know this isn’t a new distinction to make, but I’m feeling the need to make it here anyway. There may be future projects where I’m fine with letting the work be (re)shaped by market forces, but my first novel is not one of those projects. It’s intended for a certain kind of person, and I want to make sure that it’s out there for whoever is searching for such things in a form they’ll understand and appreciate.

I’ve worked hard at the writing part, so I feel more or less obligated to follow up on the querying stage, where I will shop the manuscript around in the hopes that a seasoned agent will see some promise in it. And wouldn’t it be great if that happened? It would be fantastic, for sure. Maybe I’m doing something that a lot of people will like after all.

But most likely, everyone is going to find problems with it. It’s my first novel, after all, and one of the most consistent pieces of advice I’ve come across is that a new author’s first try invariably sucks. At best, I’ll probably be asked to change things about it so that it’s more of one thing or less of another. And that’s fair; that’s what chasing after publication is all about.

So maybe I need to start thinking “spirit of SST” kind of thoughts rather than going overboard on the “kill your darlings” model of success. Maybe there’s an opportunity for self-published authors to offer their problematic darlings to readers who’ve been frustrated by them being cut out of most books in the past. Maybe I’m just realizing that small publishers may be the best solution to the kind of rare vision vs. marketable product conundrum I’ve been wrestling with.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it all progresses.